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Zen and the Art of Self-Satisfaction

The literary vaudeville

Julia Cameron, the principal author of The Artist’s Way: A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (with Mark Bryan, Putnam, 223 pages, $13.95 paperback), claims “to tap into the higher power that connects human creativity with the creative energies of the universe.” What she has really tapped into, though, is a pungent reservoir of the same old shit. The Artist’s Way reads at times exactly like contemporary poetry, at other times like economic theory, and at still other times like a combination of management jargon, NPR commentary, and friendly academic feminist anthropology. There are several bleak moments in which The Artist’s Way sounds like all of these, and like everything else as well, giving the reader the vertiginous sense that everything he has ever read has brought him to this book and there abandoned him. One finds oneself clutching the edges of the pages a bit too hard, as if to keep from pitching forward into the page and falling forever into a bottomless and eerily familiar abyss.

It is an abyss that has already swallowed a large number of people. Although The Artist’s Way was originally marketed as “a spiritual path to higher creativity,” a manual for aspiring artists, its appeal has proved far more general. The book’s basic conceit—that everyone, deep down, is an artist—seems to have hit its mark: It’s sold more than a million copies and inspired a cottage industry of sequels. Optimists might argue that The Artist’s Way affords a glimpse of what the world will look like once high and low are collapsed for good and the closed, hierarchical universe of art is finally opened to the healthful principles of democracy. It seems more honest, though, to find in it a glimpse of a world of universalized therapeutic nonsense, of banality in the service of social control and smug quiescence, a world hinted at by the title of one of the series’ recent installments—The Artist’s Way at Work.

The authors of The Artist’s Way appear to be every bit as damaged as their prose. Julia Cameron, or “Little Julie” as she sometimes calls herself, is a recovering alcoholic, Martin Scorsese’s ex-wife, and a one-time writer for Rolling Stone, in something like that order. Mark Bryan, who helped her write the book, is Cameron’s former husband and is said to be an expert in “business creativity,” which is probably all that needs to be said about him. Neither Cameron nor Bryan is an artist in the conventional sense, and this explains how they can be simultaneously uncomprehending of and condescending to art in all its forms.

Like most self-help gurus, Julia Cameron professes a very American belief in redemption through individual action, linking it, as always, to an even more American conviction that everyone needs desperately to be redeemed. We can all learn to be successful, she argues, because everyone is a failure to begin with. “[W]e are all creative,” she tells us in one breath, and then in the next, “all of us are [blocked] to some extent.” We all fail to live up to our full potential as artists, much as welfare mothers fail to live up to their potential as entrepreneurs. This is where the book comes in—job training, as it were, for the aesthetically underprivileged.

Art does not pay very well, and its practitioners, therefore, tend to be people who can afford to be frivolous.

Like most job training programs, The Artist’s Way teaches no actual skills. Cameron avoids making even the most basic suggestions about the mechanisms of art: Nowhere does she indicate, for instance, that painters should learn how to mix paint, or that violinists need to practice regularly, or that poets should, at least occasionally, read poetry. This is because Cameron doesn’t think of art as a craft, or even as a hobby, but as a health issue. If you are not an artist, you are unwell; to become an artist therefore requires not practice, but convalescence and “recovery.” Cameron does not want to teach, she wants to “daub and soothe and cool,” and, in accordance with this desire, she has crafted a program based loosely on her own experience with Alcoholics Anonymous. Through twelve easy steps, blocked artists can recover a sense of “safety,” “power,” “abundance,” a sense, in other words, that they have a rightful place at the center of the universe. This centrality is literal, not figurative: God himself is an artist, Cameron maintains, and “artists like other artists.” With friends in such high places, one might think that artists were a pretty hardy group, but this is not the case. According to Cameron artists are barely held together by “self-nurturing” and self-pity. Spend quality time alone with your own “inner artist-child,” Cameron says, or the little fella will curl up and die. Buy yourself “luxuries” like expensive perfume and “gold stick-’em stars” or your creativity will wither. Do what you want because “Artists cannot be held to anybody else’s standards!” A good first act of self-assertion, Cameron suggests, might be dyeing your hair.

Given their frailty, it should come as no surprise that criticism is very dangerous to most artists. Some criticism, Cameron reluctantly admits, can be useful, but most is “artistic child abuse,” and “all that can be done with abusive criticism is to heal from it.” As damaging as criticism from others is, however, self-criticism is worse. The “Censor”—the part of the mind which criticizes artistic output—needs to be outwitted, and the way to do this is through the creation of “morning pages,” a small batch of stream-of-consciousness writing to be done every morning for the rest of your life. Freewriting is, of course, a staple of high school English courses, and a well-established way for writers to generate ideas. For Cameron, though “morning pages” are not the beginning of the writing process; they are a metaphor for all artistic endeavor. Art comes out of people naturally and unreflectively, like urine. The artist should not think about his work; he should, as minor filmmaker Martin Ritt says, “just do it.” Cameron quotes Ritt several times in her book; she also quotes just about everyone else, from Oscar Wilde to Albert Einstein to Duke Ellington. She does not, however, quote Jonathan Swift, nor James Baldwin, nor Public Enemy, nor, for that matter, any other satirists or social critics. The reason is clear enough: For people like James Baldwin art is a form of thought, a way of engaging society by criticizing it, arguing with it, and challenging it. For Julia Cameron, on the other hand, art takes place in a pseudo-Zen emptiness outside of thought, outside of society.

Though Cameron’s artists are free of all social connections, they are also rather helplessly bourgeois. Art does not pay very well, and its practitioners, therefore, tend to be people who can afford to be frivolous. Among those who have successfully used The Artist’s Way, Cameron writes, are “Edwin, a miserable millionaire … Timothy, a … curmudgeon millionaire,” and “Phyllis, a leggy, racehorse socialite.” The purpose of The Artist’s Way, in part, is to reassure Edwin, Timothy, and Phyllis that despite it all they are really very nice; indeed, they are enormously talented and wonderful. The reason that they feel miserable is not that they have built their lives on treachery, deceit, and callousness, but that they were unjustly “wounded” by parents, teachers, and friends who told them that they could not have absolutely everything they wanted. The reason that things come easily to them is not because they are rich, but because the universe is organized to benefit artistic people like themselves. “God is unlimited in supply and everyone has equal access…. We deprive no one with our abundance,” says Cameron.

Some might argue that all of this is beside the point. The Artist’s Way is, after all, a self-help book, not a philosophical treatise. It does not claim to offer political insight: What it claims is that it will make us more creative, and that it will make us happy. Most people who pick up The Artist’s Way want merely to know if it will help them, if it works. Many of us tend to forget that the list of things that work is long and not particularly glorious. Capitalism works. So does Western medicine, fascism, advertising, and polling. So does slavery.

Let me say in its defense, then, that The Artist’s Way works, and that it will make you happy. Some day, I feel certain, it will work so well that, across the country, men and women everywhere will rise, write their morning pages, and spend the rest of the day brimming with creative energy. On that day, painters, writers, performance artists, and filmmakers will blissfully explore their childhood traumas and arrive at public healing strategies. Policemen will be filled with joy as they inventively and playfully beat a black man who has wandered into a gated community. Photographers will take rich, zesty pictures of anorexics, and publishers will think up exciting ways to convince female readers that they should look like those models. Lawyers heady with God-flow will brainstorm ways to legally drop people from the rolls of HMOs. But more than that, I see a day when the black man who is beaten doesn’t mind, and the woman who starves herself doesn’t mind, and the cancerous child without health insurance doesn’t mind either. For they, too, will be cultivating their own creativity. The man will aesthetically modulate his screams and be happy. The woman will stick her fingers down her throat, vomit in an attractive pattern, and be happy. And the child’s brain will be slowly, inevitably, and painlessly eaten away, as across his face spreads a comforting and meaningless smile.